As Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen and their motley crew of allies assemble to battle the White Walkers on Game of Thrones, it seems fitting to turn our attention to something else freezing cold that keeps coming back from the dead.
Yes, the smart fridge is back, newly re-animated by the promise that 5g’s capabilities will – at some point – give it its moment of glory. But could this really happen?
Smart fridges first appeared in the 1990s. LG launched the world’s first for consumers in 2000 but given its price tag of over $20,000 this particular innovation didn’t take off. Since then smart fridges have been the butt of many jokes and memes relating to tech one-upmanship and pointless new technology. They’ve even appeared in Hollywood films.
By 2012: LG’s smart fridge had an LCD touchscreen, camera and internet connection, it could automatically add items to an online shopping account and even switch the oven on, setting the correct temperature for whatever recipe the owner has downloaded. Now in 2019. Samsung’s new smart fridge does all this, plus it’s a voice-activated ‘intelligent home assistant’ that will ping your phone if you leave the door open – useful if you’re upstairs, not so much if you’re just getting on a flight. Who knows what the future might bring – one blog suggests fridges of the future might include a built-in fish tank so seafood fans can keep their lobsters and other critters fresher than fresh, i.e. alive.
But the fact is that even though they’ve been around for nearly 20 years, smart fridges haven’t yet reached the mainstream. According to o2’s 2018 report ‘The value of 5G for cities and communities’, 5G could change all this and provide real benefits, with smart fridge ‘shelfies’ empowering households to cut food waste by £236 a year. This is possible with or without 5G of course, but there’s no doubt that its capabilities will, in theory, provide a massive boost to all products in the ‘smart home’ market and the Internet of Things in general, allowing for faster, more reliable connectivity.
So, are the benefits clear enough for us all to go out and shop for this particular connected device? As mentioned, a smart fridge can let you know that the celery needs eating up before it liquifies on the bottom shelf or that you don’t need any more milk because there’s plenty already. But that extra £236 a year in your pocket might be wishful thinking, given that it doesn’t account for the times when you’d rather get a kebab on the way home then eat Tuesday’s left-overs. Then there’s the cost. A big, standard American-style fridge-freezer can be yours for £450. But you won’t get much change out of £2,000 if you want a smart fridge complete with internal cameras and a touchscreen.
Security has been a known issue ever since the smart fridge appeared. Just like any computer, they can become infected with viruses and malware, and because of the links to shopping and personal financial details…well you don’t need to have the brains of Tyrion Lannister to work out the possible negative consequences.
Another issue is that companies haven’t necessarily kept their smart fridges updated. In 2014, Samsung smart fridge customers found they couldn’t get into their Google calendar because the manufacturer hadn’t provided updates. It took a year to resolve, suggesting that brands see smart fridges more as a way to boost column inches and innovation credentials than a way to solve customer needs.
People tend to keep their fridges five or ten years, often longer. Does anyone aside from the super-rich really want another piece of expensive equipment that has to be replaced every few years when the technology becomes obsolete? A lot of people have suggested it’d be more sensible just mounting a tablet on your ordinary fridge and not worrying about cameras keeping track of your cake-snaffling or parmesan habit.
Finally, who really has the time and energy? One way or another, if you want your smart fridge to remind you when food will go off, you have to enter the expiry dates. It’s hard enough to keep track of Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram and the like, without having to spend extra minutes in the day as PA to your own white goods.
But who knows how things might change. A 2018 report suggests smart appliance revenues will rise to over $342 billion worldwide between 2017 and 2027, though some have questioned its credibility.
For now, like Jamie and Brienne, Sam, Arya and the rest, all we can do is wait to see if the icy hordes are coming to take over our lives – and the world.